The Bard of the Yukon

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Few periods in American history have spawned as many legends as the 1896-99 Klondike Gold Rush.  The rush brought out the best and worst in the men and women who swarmed north in search of wealth.  The tales of their adventures, some true and some myths, have filled many books.  But few writers captured the spirit of gold rush life like poet Robert W. Service, sometimes called “The Bard of the Yukon.”  His writing was so expressive, and so evocative of the time that his readers took him for a hard-bitten old Klondike prospector. 

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Robert William Service never prospected for gold and did not, in fact, arrive in the Klondike until years after the gold rush played out. 

Service was born in 1874 to a Scottish family living in England.  Trained to be a bank clerk like his father, he left Glasgow for Canada at the age of 21, hoping to become a cowboy.  He drifted around western North America for a time and finally took work with the Canadian Bank of Commerce.  After working in a number of branches, he was posted to the branch in Whitehorse in 1904, then later to Dawson City in the Klondike in in 1908.  Inspired by the vast beauty of the wilderness, Service began writing poetry about the things he saw.  Conversations with local characters who’d lived through the gold rush led him to write about things he heard, embellishing them with his own imagination. 

After collecting enough poems for a book, he offered a publisher $100 of his own money to publish the work.  The publisher returned the money and offered Service a contract.  The book, published as The Spell of the Yukon in America and The Songs of a Sourdough in England, made him world famous and also very wealthy.  Within two years he was able to quit his job at the bank and travel to Paris and Hollywood.  Service remained a British citizen for life.  During World War I he served as an ambulance driver.  He wrote many poems about the war and about other places he visited – more than 1,000 poems in all, as well as two autobiographical novels.

He married a Parisian woman and lived most of his life in France, where he died in 1958.  His wife, thirteen years his junior, died in 1989 at the age of 102.

If you’ve never read Service’s Gold Rush poems you’re in for a treat.  I especially love “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” quoted in part at the beginning of this blog, about the prospector who was always cold.  It’s too long to include in its entirety, but here’s a link:


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20 thoughts on “The Bard of the Yukon”

  1. I always find it interesting that these rough and tumble adventurers and cowboys would write poetry. Obviously, Service had the soul of an adventurer even though he did his time in a bank!

    I truly love this blog for a lot of reasons, including finding out tidbits like this!

    And not a bad book cover at all btw 😉

    Peace, Julie

  2. And we love having you visit, Julie. For a long time I assumed RW Service went through the Klondike prospecting experience and was surprised to learn he didn’t. He compiled “The Cremation of Sam McGee” from a couple of different stories he heard and added his own delightful surprise ending.
    But, hey, isn’t that what writers do?

  3. A note of apology here. I’ll be with you a little longer this morning, and then I need to leave for an out of town family funeral. I’m hoping you and my sister fillies will leave your comments and keep the place lively.

  4. Hi Elizabeth! Don’t you just love a rugged adventurer with a poet’s heart? What an interesting man.

    And don’t worry at all about the blog. The Fillies all love to talk, and we’ve got the best blog followers around 🙂 You and your family will be in our prayers today.

  5. Thanks Vicki. And thanks to the rest of you for dropping by. I’m out the door but I’ll leave you with a teaser from another RWS poem.

    “…Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark.
    A woman screamed. The lights went up.
    Two men lay stiff and stark.”

    If you know the title or can fill in more lines you get to be a member of the Robert W. Service fan club, which I just started.

  6. Elizabeth, this guy was an amazing poet. Love his sense of humor and his take on the West. Sounds like he had a great life and a special love. His Parisian wife sure lived to a ripe old age. Bet she drank lots of French wine. I hear that’s the secret to a long life. 🙂

  7. Hi Elizabeth, I have read some Service but did not know his history. How fascinating~count me in as a member of the fan club. God bless your family with comfort, peace and happy memories. oxoxoxox

  8. My family loves that poem of Sam McGee. We have the entire poem here and I remember my BIL reading it to me. He loved it, too. But then both my husband and BIL prospected for gold in their younger days and they, too, have many a tale. One of their adventures I wrote about in the book, LONE ARROW’S PRIDE — some of that book was taken directly from a few of their adventures.

    Beautiful cover, by the way.

  9. The Shooting of Dan McGrew:

    “Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark;
    And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark;
    Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
    While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the Lady that’s known as Lou.”

  10. i LOVE your picture at the beginning…it’s just beautiful!

    like the pp i always thought it interesting to combine poetry and cowboys
    beautiful stuff

  11. Yeah, Tracy. AND she has kids and a granddaughter! Methinks she waited a bit late to go gallivanting off to France.

    Looks like the fan club has quite a few members. 🙂

  12. Hi Tabitha & Karen!

    Like you, Karen, I love the poetry when combined with cowboys — but actually I kinda like poetry anyway. Guess it started in English Lit.

    And yes poetry and cowboy stuff — love it — only thing I might add to is poetry and the American Indian. 🙂

  13. Phew, had to go read it again quick. I thought Tracy said Robert Service married a Frenchman.


    Now I can try and get my rancher husband to go to Paris. (HAH! I can barely get him to take me out to dinner in town.)

  14. It’s funny that as a Canadian, I grew up thinking Robert Service was ‘one of our own’ because he wrote of the Yukon.

    For about 12 years, hubby and I owned 3 acres in the town of Teslin, Yukon Territory. It was only treed land, but just the thought of owning a part of the Yukon thrilled me like nothing else.

    Loved the post, Elizabeth.

    Anita Mae.

  15. He did spend a lot of time in Canada, Anita. Just wasn’t born there.
    So cool that you owned land in the Yukon. When I was a kid, there was some kind of offer on a cereal box (?)where you could send off and get a deed to a square inch of Yukon land. Can’t remember whether I did it or not.
    What a history that place has!

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